When it comes to a film like “Firewall”, where you have a bankable star under duress, we all know the hero ends up saving the day. The barometers for appreciation are then whether there’s narrative rhythm and clarity, whether certain characters stand out through the writing or the performances and whether or not it’s a pleasant movie to sit through. In our present case, I must report very little to enjoy about this sluggish would-be thriller set in the world of banking security.

I’d be at a loss to come up with reasons, even for unconditional Harrison Ford fans, to go see a film whose single moment of vicarious satisfaction you’ve probably seen in the trailers. That’s when the good guy empties the bad guy’s offshore account, in a manner I couldn’t even try to summarize. Other than that, words like tedious and dull come to mind about this star vehicle where Ford plays Seattle bank security expert Jack Stanfield. Jack has spent 20 years developing security systems for his bank, and his high-paying job has allowed him a comfortable life with architect wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and two children in a stately lakefront house. Young Andy is played by Jimmy Bennett, who never seems to be in peaceful settings (he was in last year’s Hostage and The Amityville Horror, and he’ll be aboard the Poseidon in May), while older sister Sarah is played by Carly Schroeder.

Stanfield is at his workplace when he meets Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), who’s posing as an entrepreneur. But when Cox furtively steps into Jack’s car after a meeting, he reveals his daring plan: he has enlisted cronies to hold his family hostage in their own home as leverage to force Jack to hack into the bank’s system and transfer him an insane amount of money in a way that would finger Jack as the culprit who ran way with the cash after committing a passion-driven murder. But that’s not all people, oh no. The plan has all the bad guys becoming sleepover bandits (they brought some frozen food) and Cox spending an extended amount of time with Jack inside the bank’s security sector to go over what needs to be done. It would be irrelevant to point out the names of the peripheral villains, but there’s one who looks more geeky than threatening, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do something, at some point, that eases the family’s ordeal.

Cox is a rather thankless role for Bettany, who put his talent to far better use in films like Master and Commander and Dogville, and even in Wimbledon, where he previously worked with director Richard Loncraine. Prone to killing associates in cold blood at the slightest mistake, Cox would be creepy if he wasn’t so forgettable, even if the script by Joe Forte tries hard to paint him as a heartless monster. The chief example of that is the scene where he gives a problematic cookie to a weirdly unsuspecting, peanut-allergic Andy (while they’re both watching the Flintstones). Conceptually, Cox’s money transfer scheme seems wholly preposterous. I understand very little about computers and online security, but this movie completely lost me with all the talk about wire transfer terminals and the variety of technological patchwork. If ever a movie needed an explanatory sheet about what the hell is going on, this one would be a good candidate.

But even with a basic grasp of the plot (evil dude messes with good guy’s family, good guy will do anything to protect and save his loved ones), “Firewall” irritates on other levels as well. There’s hardly a break from Alexandre Desplat’s overly insistent score, and Loncraine resorts to a few ill-considered gimmick shots more associated with horror films during the initial attack on the family. Madsen (steamy in The Hot Spot, splendid in Sideways) does her best at showing resilience under pressure, but she’s well into the background of what develops into a contrived cat and mouse game in which none other than the family dog will play an important part. It’s also a bit of a downer to see Ford in this weak variation on the kind of role he used to master, notably in Patriot Games (1992) and Air Force One (1997), two films featuring direct and violent threats to his family. The 63-year old still has that steely look, but it’s not a good sign when the film’s potentially best line (“You’ll get your money…when I get my family!”) comes too late and without sufficient anticipation or setup to create much interest.

Very few films have drawn my attention since 2006 began (that’s part of the reason why I checked into Eli Roth’s excellent, powerful Hostel on three occasions). But if you’re looking for efficient genre filmmaking, I recommend the unjustly slaughtered remake of When a Stranger Calls, whose linear simplicity and timely suspense are among the qualities lacking in “Firewall”.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay